The year 2017 has been one of many great articles, interviews, and discussions here at Designing Sound and we want to thank all of our readers for their attention, suggestions, contributions, and overwhelming support. There have been so many great films, shows, games, and events this year that we thought we would share some of our favorites for you to go back and check out in case you missed them!
This post is full of links and Youtube videos, so please be patient on the loading. I assure you it is worth it!
This year, as millions of others did, I got a Switch along with Mario Odyssey, soon joined by Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Those two games, along with being great as such, also offer fantastic audio design experiences.
(Disclaimer: I know Mario Kart 8 is technically a 2014 game but Deluxe got released this year and I never got a Wii U so… this counts, right?)
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
What really ties up Mario Kart’s audio chaos to me is its super tight mix. Indeed, despite a lot of actions happening at the same time during a race, triggered both by the players and the environment, Nintendo’s audio design team always manages to make sure everyone gets the audio information and feedback they need at any given time, from power-up activations to field reactions such as the ones in the Electrodrome. Special mention to the Zelda track where, not only have Mario Kart elements been replaced with Zelda ones (such as the coins being changed to rupees), all the classic sound effects have been replaced by Zelda SFX (getting a rupee, the “opening chest” jingle playing when getting an item, …). This track, as weird as it seemed when announced, ends up being one of my favorites from MK8 for the overall attention and love it’s filled with.
Super Mario Odyssey
Listing everything Super Mario Odyssey does great would be nearly impossible, even when only focusing on its audio. Along the memorable melodies the game is filled with, its charming audio design shows so much creativity everywhere that the player can’t help but display the silliest of smiles while playing it. From the accordion-caterpillar to the mind-blowing Mario Galaxy Easter Egg in the Pause Menu, from the lovable Banjo-esque creatures voices to your faithful partner Cappy’s voice exclamations throughout the whole game, the game is, as usual for a Mario game (and dare I say, for a Nintendo game), a wonderful toybox filled with the creativity and love that acts as yet another proof for why Nintendo’s audio team is definitely one of the top tier game audio team there is to me. And as Mario Kart 8 did with the Zelda track, I have to mention how Nintendo also managed here to make me completely change my mind about the New Donk City level, from “…but how does this fit to the game?” to “This is one of the best Mario levels ever”.
For non-game audio stuff, I would also mention the movies Blade Runner & Baby Driver, but I see those two have been covered already by my esteemed colleagues here, so please go and enjoy reading about those fantastic (and not only sonically!) movies!
Rev. Dr. Bradley D Meyer
2017 flew by without giving me a chance to sit down and listen as much as I would have wanted. While there was tons of great sounding and innovative media that made its way out into the public this year, I had the opportunity to engage with just a sliver of it. But here’s a list of some of my favorites:
Blade Runner 2049
There’s a dinky local movie theater by my house that I usually see movies at, but in hearing about the new Blade Runner movie, I opted to go to a fancy theater– Cinerama. This was the first movie I saw in Dolby Atmos and I’m sure that had some small part in my enjoying the sound design in this film, but it was truly a masterfully designed film. To match the stunning visuals of the film, the sound had to be equally detailed, making every nuance of the both the technology of the city and desolation of the nuked out areas come to life, while also giving those huge Roger Deakins shots space to breathe, and it succeeded as few other films did (for me) this year.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Much was made of the use of binaural recordings in Ninja Theory’s fantasy/schizophrenia simulator, and indeed it is one of very few console games that actually recommends you play wearing headphones. The star of the sonic show is Senua’s interior monologue that sometimes provides clues in gameplay, but more often gives a frighteningly realistic glimpse into the struggles of psychosis. The team at Ninja Theory worked with psychiatrists and neuroscientists to try and accurately portray these issues. What really strikes me about the sound design here is the amount of space given for the world and the attention to detail given by the sound team. From the creakiness of shoddy wooden bridges to the painstaking detail in the characters movement sounds and footsteps. The game is not without its flaws, but putting the headphones on and walking through the world gives me goosebumps as I see and hear the Norse world come to light against the struggles of Senua’s addled mind.
Horizon Zero Dawn
Guerrilla were given a rare opportunity to create a new world: a future Earth destroyed and rebuilt and overrun with robot dinosaurs. As a once sentence pitch, it sounds pretty goofy, but they pulled it off in every direction: the gameplay is fun, is visually stunning and the world comes alive in believable and emotionally impactful ways. Probably the best example of this is via the sounds of the robot dinosaurs themselves. Guerilla’s audio team did a fantastic job of bringing to life the mechanical aspects of these creatures with just enough animal like vocalizations and characteristics to give the player greater investment in interacting with, hunting, riding, and yes, killing these creatures. I find myself calling them creatures rather than robots largely due to the outstanding sound design that gave them both personality and meaning within the context of the game.
Recording at Remlinger Farms
This is more “the most fun I had recording,” rather than a best sound thing, but I wanted to mention it if just to watch the movie Robbie Elias made of what happens when 7 sound designers are given free reign of a children’s petting zoo and amusement park. I feel exceptionally lucky to be part of community that finds merit in pursuing our passion together and collaborating to make ourselves all better, all while finding really great sounds in the world. There were so many wonderful sounds captured from the rickety roller coaster to the hissing of the steam train to the strange pleading coos of a turkey, I can’t wait to use them in my professional life!
Kylo Ren’s Lightsaber in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (NO SPOILERS)
Perhaps no fictional setting is as sonically well defined and established as the Star Wars universe. The sounds within it are so well known at this point that your typical audience member would probably notice if a tie fighter and x-wing had the sounds of their engines and laser cannons swapped. So when there’s either a brand new prominent sound or a significantly evolved sound that still fits and and works alongside everything else, it’s quite an accomplishment. When that sound also happens to be the most well known, distinctive and imitated by all in their childhood (…ok, adulthood too), then it makes it onto my “best of” list.
Making a sonic distinction between different characters lightsabers to reflect characteristics of the one who wields it started at the beginning with Ben Burtt’s work on ep.IV where Vader’s red lightsaber had a subtle, more spluttery and uncontrolled quality to it compared to the Luke’s steady throbbing blue one. In “The Force Awakens”, Kylo’s new lightsaber already had new unique elements that made it distinct. It’s clear though that the envelope was pushed even further in “The Last Jedi”.
In TFA it sounded like the core DNA of the Kylo’s lightsaber was still very much routed in the lightsaber sounds established in the original trilogy, with new unique elements spicing it up adding a unique flavor. In TLD it felt like the balance had shifted to be pretty even between the heritage and new elements. It sounds very distinct to my ear from the lightsabers in the original trilogy, far more aggressive and choppy. It’s hard to describe but (if you’ll indulge me) it’s a little like huge fist-sized pieces of popcorn being popped by a massive Van de Graaff generator at a rapid but steady rate with a Harley exhaust on the side (I’m in no way suggesting that was the approach taken and certainly don’t try that at home!).
Whatever the process was, I think it’s a very successful evolution and elicited a more than a few nods of the head from me in the darkened theater as I watched and listened with glee.
The ‘Tequila’ Shootout in “Baby Driver”
Was it too much, too on the nose? Maybe. Was it fun, cute and effective? I think so. The combination of picture editing, sound editing, and crucially production choreography all cut to or performed in time to music throughout this film was part of its unique signature and crucially was interwoven as part of the narrative making it more than just a self-indulgent stylistic element.
The ‘Taquila’ shootout was probably the most over-the-top example, yet I still found myself with a smile on my face with each snare drum / gunshot accent.
Ambiences in “Bladerunner 2049”
I couldn’t find an example of the specific scene I reference, the one where the character K first meets Mariette and her fellow “working girls” in the streets of LA, but this short film released prior to the film gives you a good impression for the world “Blade Runner 2049” exists in.
I’m the first to complain when I feel a film is too loud, and based on what I had heard from others, I feared “Bladerunner 2049″would earn a spot on my “my goodness that was way too loud” list. But “Bladerunner 2049” managed to gracefully walk along the tightrope of my loudness threshold, always threatening to earn its spot on the list, but never doing so. Barring a few ceiling-panel-shaking moments which I felt overstayed their welcome by a few seconds, I thought this film sounded exceptional.
There were many aspects I loved, but what stood out the most to me weren’t the big moments, but the use of relative silence, and the outstanding ambiences, especially those in the LA city street scenes which were always rich with activity. I remember hearing bold off-screen sounds suggesting various contraptions and goings-on that were confidently left ambiguous and with no visual explanation as to the source. These soundscapes really helped build and expand this rich world beyond the fame edge complimenting the work the visuals were doing within it.
Minimalism in “Breadwinner”
Making for a nice contrast to the rich, complex and detailed soundscape of “Blade Runner 2049”, the sound work in “The Breadwinner” is a great example of how to take a minimalistic approach to sound. Generally, I tend to prefer soundtracks that are rich, layered, and that reward repeated listening, but “The Breadwinner” took a sensitive minimalist approach that really suited the visual aesthetic. It’s editorial choices as what to cover and feature in the mix allowed the audience to really surrender themselves without being overwhelmed with visual and sonic information, to better process what is an intense and harrowing story told in a world most can’t directly relate to. I read the book on which the film is based back in my teens and highly recommend this retelling of an important story with global relevance.
I’m a little behind having only this year bought a “current-gen” console, so forgive me for playing catch-with titles you long since traded in at Game Stop (thanks for your copy by the way).
LSR44 Sniper Mode in “Killzone Shadow Fall”
As a consumer of video games, I estimate I’ve probably heard about three hundred different weapon sounds over dozens of games. So it takes something quite exceptional at this point to stand out as being novel in the genre. The approach for the LSR44’s sniper mode in “Killzone Shadow Fall” is unexpected, creative, bold in approach yet subtle enough that it can work its intended effect without non-sound-attentive folk being too aware of what’s going on.
It starts when you switch to the sniper mode from the SMG mode which delivers a suitably satisfying transformation sound. You then begin to charge up a shot with a satisfying charging effect that rises in pitch. This gives effective feedback as to how much energy you are about to discharge on your foe (or in my hands, to the 1ft of air around his/her person). What makes this sniper mode special however, isn’t the sound of the charge or shot itself. What’s special is that while you are charging a shot, all extraneous sound gets gradually high-passed until you have fully charged the shot, at which point all but the highest frequencies are filtered out. Even though time continues, you feel as if the world is momentarily suspended, holding its breath in anticipation of what’s about to happen. When you release the shot, you not only get the satisfying sci-fi gun shot sound, but the rest of the frequency spectrum is suddenly dropped back in as part of the shot.
The effect feels amazing and is reminiscent of ‘big air’ in the SSX games which would high-pass the sound and music as you soar though the sky before dropping everything back in as you return to earth with a musical broadband punch to the gut, similar to the shot being fired. It’s a fantastic effect and a great example of how you can use elements other than the sound you’re designing itself, to enhance its intended effect.
Dialog in “Mafia III”
The first “Mafia”game may be my favorite game of all time. As such I always get excited when the next in the series comes along. I was left satisfied, if a little underwhelmed with “Mafia II”, and while “Mafia III” certainly raised the bar, it still didn’t highs of the first game in terms of the narrative and the ensemble cast.
One area it surpass its predecessors in however was in the presentation of its sound and dialog. While I didn’t necessarily enjoy the narrative path Lincoln Clay and his cohort took in my hands, I found them all utterly convincing. This is all largely thanks to impeccably written, performed, recorded and implemented dialog throughout the game. I was about to try and highlight a few of my favorite characters and voice performances, but they’re all exceptional.
Closing Rifts in “Dragon Age: Inquisition”
Those who follow me on twitter may know my handle is @audioblackholes, which stems from a behind-the-scenes featurette for “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” in which Ben Burtt discusses the sound of the seismic charges that Jango Fett unleashes on Obi-Wan. One key element in the sound was a tiny moment of intense silence just before the release of the explosion. The short moment of silence results in a huge contrast between the explosion and what precedes it, making it that much more impactful.
I encountered something similar to this “audio black hole” effect this year when closing rifts (think magic window to an evil parallel universe) in “Dragon Age: inquisition”. While there isn’t a moment of true silence, there is a small gap that separates the initial part of the sound, a rising building energy, from the eventual explosion / release. I think it’s a great example of how you can use silence or gaps between sounds to build tension before a big release.
In Real Life…
Remember “ABC” everyone, Always Be Capturing! Nothing makes me quite as happy as a good unexpected found sound. I never go out without my humble recording rig with me and there’s always something to record. Highlights this year included the cacophony of a traditional British seaside amusement arcade, the ambience of Wells cathedral, fluttering water sculptures in Tiburon, the cell doors of Alcatraz, old wood rollercoasters in Green Bay, NIKE nuclear missile cassette elevators, and creaky wood stairs in Edison’s factory.
Happy Recording Accidents
The only thing better than an unplanned found sound might be when a planned one produces unexpected results that are even better than what you had imagined. One such moment this year occurred with a colleague when we wanted to record the sound of numerous tin cans clattering to the ground. Some strong winds however resulted in a continuous cascading clatter of rolling cans that we didn’t expect. Click the image below if you want to see a video of that particular incident.
Everyone above covered most of what i’d say more eloquently.
Blade Runner 2049
Good soundtrack. Punchy guns.
Calming teleportation sounds, catchy musical theme, emotional voice acting has made this show fun to binge and get caught up on.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Charming and wonderful sound design as always from Nintendo. The philosophy of “more with less” that Nintendo first-party games follow is in full form. The minimal soundtrack gives way to immersive ambiances, foley, and characters sound. Definitely my game of the year sonically as well as mechanically.
Scappa – Alessandro Cortini
I discovered this song in 2017 and it is an absolute treat to space out to and think about existence.
While 2017 wasn’t a banner year as far as some sources are concerned, we did get to see some really fantastic new games and movies hit the market. Here’s a bit of what I personally enjoyed over the past year…
The sirens of the German dive-bomber planes in Dunkirk
Yes, there is some controversy over Dunkirk’s final mix. But throughout the relatively dB laden film, there are some really innovative sounds. My personal favorite was Sound Supervisor Richard King’s siren aboard the German BF 109 dive-bomber. The distant scream from the plane on approach gave the desired chilling effect of heightened anticipation and added distinguishing characteristics between the German BF 109 and the British Spitfires. I as I understand it, King created elements of this sound by taking real air raid sirens into the desert and letting them roar. That recording trip is now at the top of my bucket list!
The whimsical yet totally successful style of Cuphead
Wow, Cuphead is a difficult game to play. Yet even while you’re playing the same level over and over…and over… again, you can’t help but enjoy the creative spin that StudioMDHR put on their indie game. From finger snaps as your weapon to classic cartoon pops and squeaks, this game successfully invokes nostalgic feelings of the animated cartoons we all grew up on.
The tense moments of stealth in Horizon Zero Dawn
(starting around the 3 min mark)
I know Brad already mentioned Horizon Zero Dawn, but I personally wanted to give extra emphasis on the stealth mode within the game. I found the design in those moments to be so fun and somewhat hair-raising that I would actually enjoy just sitting in the tall grass and listening to the tense atmosphere punctuated by drones, sub drops, and rustling wind.
The captivating, yet clear mix of Destiny 2
Following the success of the original Destiny game, Destiny 2 is beautifully designed with seamlessly integrated dialog exposition and creative sound design for new worlds and characters. But through all of this, one thing that really stood out to me was the high degree of polish in the mix. Moving from UI elements into gameplay is smooth and every transition seems to have that handcrafted touch. And when rockets go whizzing by your face, man, you really hear it.
What were some of your favorite sounds of 2017? Lets us know in the comments below or on the Designing Sound Exchange post.